‘Black Mirror’ presents concise, unsettling social commentary

Toby Kebbell plays a man who succumbs to paranoia from a record-all device planted in his brain in “The Entire History of You.” Photo courtesy of Wired.
Toby Kebbell plays a man who succumbs to paranoia from a record-all device planted in his brain in “The Entire History of You.” Photo courtesy of Wired.

Charlie Brooker’s creation, Black Mirror, is a modern, technology-obsessed Twilight Zone with a sinister outlook on the future of humanity. Each episode of the British show depicts a futuristic world where some technological advancement has altered the way society functions.

While the show’s overarching message concerns the increasing role technology plays in our lives, the show never takes a simplistic view by demonizing technology. Instead, Black Mirror’s strength is its painfully vivid depiction of how technology interacts with emotions and impacts the human experience. The characters’ raw emotions present a far more terrifying dystopia than any robot-takes-over-the-world plot ever could. As Brooker said in his promotion of his series, Black Mirror is “all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes time if we’re clumsy.” A little unsettling.

What is perhaps most impressive about Black Mirror is that each episode features an entirely new plot and set of characters. Because of this, order does not necessarily matter, and I recommend that viewers start with the second episode rather than the first. This is not because the first episode is bad or worse, but because its downright bizarre premise might misrepresent the intentions of the show in its opening minutes.

Sometimes the technological advancement can be subtle, as in the first season’s standout episode, “The Entire History of You.” In this episode, everyone has a chip implanted in his or her brain that can recall, and play on a screen, any memory that person has ever had. In a later episode, a widow subscribes to a service that uses her dead husband’s text messages, tweets and Facebook posts to create a program that texts her exactly as he would have. Other times, the episode’s environment is completely unrecognizable, such as in “Fifteen Million Merits,” in which people work as manual laborers on stationary bikes to create electrical energy and are primarily concerned with the appearance of their online avatars. Regardless of the scale of the technological changes in each episode, Black Mirror constantly combines weariness of technology with the human tendency to search for truth and reality.

The show frequently keeps the viewer from being in the know. Episodes sometimes give no context when introducing new characters, which is, oddly enough, frustrating and satisfying at the same time.

This happens in “White Bear,” when a character we start out sympathizing with and rooting for as she escapes attack and harrassment turns out to have a dark past. Think capital punishment, and how sometimes we might feel an odd sympathy for the wickedly immoral before they are sent to their deaths. Black Mirror operates in this vein, leaning toward the uncomfortable more often than not and making us think twice about human behavior. I know I’m being incredibly vague here; I’m just wary of giving anything away.

The acting is superb, too, with appearances by particular talents like Hayley Atwell and Jon Hamm in different episodes, playing characters not at all reminiscent of those we know them for.

The latest proof that we are experiencing a golden age of television, this show has been criminally under viewed, at least stateside, since its debut in 2011 on UK’s Channel 4. However, this is unlikely to remain the case for long. In 2015, Netflix bought the rights to the show, with plans to produce more episodes as a Netflix original. This October, six new episodes will air on Netflix. Early reviews from advanced screenings indicate that Brooker has maintained his ingenious level of storytelling while bringing the plots to even greater levels.

There is perhaps some irony in the fact that Black Mirror mostly deals with themes about the enormous and sometimes sinister impacts of technology on society, yet is only able to reach its audience because of television and Netflix.

There is something about Black Mirror that does run counter to many other current television shows. In an era of binge watching, Black Mirror is a show that demands to be thought about, discussed and wrestled with. Upon completion of an episode, the familiar urge to hit play on the next is superseded by the need to let everything sink in. You are rewarded for letting each episode stay with you, for carrying it in the back of your mind throughout the day. Black Mirror’s capacity to make us slow down and think, both about each episode and the future we are heading towards, certainly makes it a show worth watching.

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